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Decoding Miers

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Back in the civil rights era, a transplanted New Yorker living in North Carolina named Harry Golden published an odd newspaper called the Carolina Israelite. With the keen eye of an outsider, he noticed that while whites would not sit down with blacks at lunch counters and other places, they would stand with them in bank lines or supermarkets. So Golden concocted the "vertical integration plan," which mocked racial segregation and which, to my surprise, is apparently known to George W. Bush. He has adopted it to discuss abortion.

You think I jest, but I do not. A careful reading of the White House transcript from the president's recent news conference strongly suggests that Bush will not discuss abortion while sitting down, but might while standing up. Let's go to what Bush said when he was asked whether, over the course of his long friendship with Harriet Miers, he had ever discussed abortion with her: "Not to my recollection have I ever sat down with her."

Miers, of course, has been the White House counsel and a longtime member of Bush's legal team -- both in Washington and, before that, in Austin. She was the one who helped him vet judicial appointments, including the most recent and momentous of them, the elevation of John Roberts from federal appellate judge to chief justice of the United States. It is impossible to believe that Roberts and others were discussed without either Bush or Miers mentioning abortion. They must have stood the entire time.

There is, however, another possibility: code. It's conceivable that Bush and Miers developed a secret language for talking about abortion. For instance, when vetting judicial appointees, Bush might have asked, "Is he pro-banana or anti-banana?" Miers would then look around, point to the walls (which have ears even in the White House) and say, "anti-banana." Then she would take another file from the pile marked "anti-banana" and recommend that person to the bench. Bush, knowing the code, might then ask, "Where does he stand on late-term bananas," or "bananas on demand?" or something really clever like that. Maybe this code was developed by George Tenet, late of the CIA and the recipient of a presidential medal for getting nearly everything wrong about Iraq. The CIA knows some dandy codes.

The clever use of code words or the ability to stand for a long time while discussing abortion might seem far-fetched, but there is no other way to explain the assurances that the very important James C. Dobson has offered his fellow conservative Christians regarding Miers. "When you know some of the things that I know -- that I probably shouldn't know -- you will understand why I have said, with fear and trepidation, that Harriet Miers will be a good justice," he told his radio listeners. Then, referring to aborted fetuses, he added, "If I have made a mistake here, I will never forget the blood of those babies that will die will be on my hands to some degree." So said the founder of Focus on the Family about a Supreme Court nominee who has none at all.

Deconstructing what Dobson has said, it's clear he has received assurances that Miers is not only antiabortion -- that's a given -- but that she will smite Roe v. Wade when she can. Dobson said he has not talked to the president about this, but he has talked with Karl Rove. Whatever the case, Dobson seems to know something that even the president pretends he does not know -- and, of course, is not known to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, either. What's more, you can bet that when the senators ask, they will be told by Miers that she cannot answer because the issue is likely to come before the court. (Also, she will be sitting down.) All of this is a ridiculous charade. The president makes the abundantly unqualified Miers seem even more unqualified -- a clerk of some sort with whom he would never discuss weighty matters. It is all a soft lie, an odd folkway of this place called "inside the Beltway," where everyone talks in code and no one ever says what they mean. This odd recourse to feints and fibs demeans the process by which the nation's most important judges are selected. What Harry Golden would make of this, we will never know, but I'd like to think he'd dust off his old plan and tell the president to just sit down. That way, the truth may come to him.

cohenr@washpost.com


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